Ambassador Erieka Bennett, a die-hard bridge-builder
By Usman Mama
In an exclusive interview with this magazine in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, on the heels of the May 29th, 1999 inauguration of then-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Dr. Erieka Bennett, who headed a delegation comprising reporters and entertainers to the historical event, said: “You really are not whole until you understand your roots. Our roots belong to Africa.” Echoing the same sentiment eight years later during a quiet moment in 2007 after being presented in London with the Global Leadership Award endorsed by the World Bank and the IMF in recognition of her impressive achievements, Bennett – an African American woman born and raised in the United States – stated: “You are not an African because you are born in Africa; you are an African when Africa is born in you.”
It’s impossible to capture in one article the full dimension of this extraordinary woman with multiple hats, for Bennett is a top-grade africanist, a diplomat, a media leader, a consultant, a women’s advocate, a philanthropist, a business leader, and a seasoned businesswoman who recently launched her own brand of perfume, Erieka. Her best-selling book, Erieka’s Magical Realism, launched in June 2011 in New York, chronicles her amazing journey that led to her becoming the first African American Ambassador for the African diaspora, under the umbrella of the African Union, the Pan-African organization.
It’s in this challenging role as the modern-day Marcus Garvey – a 20th century black activist and staunch proponent of Pan-Africanism who promoted the return of diasporan Africans to their ancestral lands – that Ambassador Bennett has founded and heads the African Union-endorsed Diaspora African Forum, AUDAF. AUDAF is sponsoring an award dinner in a major Washington, D.C. hotel on August 4th to honor several African countries, individuals and organizations that have made specific contributions toward strengthening relationships and providing opportunities for Africans returning to Africa. Headquartered in Accra, Ghana, the Diaspora African Forum also has a mission in Abuja, Nigeria, with more missions planned in ten other African countries.
Dr. Bennett, even before becoming an A.U. Ambassador, has always embarked on bold initiatives benefiting Africa, a continent where she has lived and traveled across extensively over the past thirty years. Her most innovative endeavors include the 1997 creation of the African Communications Agency, ACA, in concert with Alhaji-Dr. Bamanga Tukur, one of the premier businessmen in Nigeria, to help change the negative perception of Africa, especially in the United States where the average person used to hold the false view that all Africans were starving, displaced by civil wars, stricken with AIDS and ruled by ruthless dictators. Africa does have problems, Dr. Bennett conceded in yet another interview with The African, but she stressed the “need to show also the other side, the business opportunities, the rich culture, and more.”
Through the leadership of its chairman, Alhaji-Ambassador-Dr. Tukur, and its vice chairperson and president, Dr. Bennett, ACA – which is headquartered in Accra, with subsidiaries in Nigeria and South Africa – established a fruitful partnership with CNN and became the news network’s first advertising representative for the African region, bringing African advertisements on television screens throughout the world.
Ambassador Bennett’s contributions to the African business sector also include, among other things, her tenure as the international vice president of the African Business Round-table, the first indigenous Africa-wide business organization, thus lending the organization a new voice. On the U.S. front, Bennett was part of the pressure group that influenced the adoption of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA (signed into law in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton), at a stage where the legislation aimed at opening U.S. marketplace to thousands of African products free of tax was opposed even by U.S. lawmakers that were traditional “friends of Africa.”
A staunch women’s advocate, Ambassador Bennett made significant contributions to “The Abuja Accords,” a historic document on the aspirations of the African woman born out of the first African Woman’s Conference held in Abuja in March 2004.
Dr. Bennett, president of her own company, The bridge, has reaped some benefits from her decades-long involvement in Africa, just as her numerous contributions in a wide array of areas have earned her heartfelt gratitude culminating in several awards that include: the Visionary Leadership Award 2010 in Washington, D.C.; the Trumpet Award in the United States in September 2009; the Pan-African Women of Excellence Award in South Africa in October 2009, and the African Global Leadership Award in London in November 2007.
Dr. Bennett holds a copy of “The Legacy” during the lavish book launching event.
Over a decade ago, ACA’s new baby of sorts, ACA Publishing, published its first book in a series about presidents and notable personalities. Titled The Legacy, the upscale book gives detailed and profusely-illustrated account of President Clinton’s legacy to Africa, and statements of key African and American political, business and community leaders. In a letter to Dr. Bennett, President Clinton – who earned the title of “first black president of the United States” before President Obama officially conquered the title in 2008 – wrote: “I just wanted to thank you for your outstanding work on The Legacy. The book is wonderful, and I treasure it. You have done an excellent job on behalf of U.S./Africa relations, and I appreciate your support of my efforts, too. All the best, and thanks again.”
Ambassador Bennett is all about impacting the lives of others. In her book, she writes: “As I reveal my captivating life to you through these pages, I assure you that a magical transformation will occur to you. Your life will be transformed. You will change your thoughts to attract the very best outcome that you desire and use what you learn to positively impact many people. Transforming is not an easy task. Yet, as a caterpillar nests in its cocoon, so must the human spirit, in order to emerge from its trials and tribulations to flow as butterflies on the currents of life’s destiny.”